This week, we have more information on women's national team coaching moves around the world, focusing on England, Wales and Mexico. We also look at news from Africa on leagues in South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt as well as the initial CAF referring pool for the 2023 Women's World Cup.
We then look at some updates from the UWS on new franchises coming into the first and second tier leagues for 2021 as well as a new WPSL franchise for Vermont. We also discuss the United Soccer Leagues, which runs a men's Tier 2 and 3 professional and a summer pro-am league for college players, has announced that they will start a women's league in 2022—this was the same league that ran the W-League from 1995 through the 2015 season—and we look at some ramifications of that proposed move vis-à-vis the WPSL and UWS leagues. Finally, we look at the news late last week that the UWS will work with a men's professional league (NISA) to launch a professional league in 2022, below the NWSL level.
More National Team Coaching Changes—England, Wales and Mexico
Earlier this month, we reported on recent coaching moves in Morocco, Ireland and Scotland among current or former women's national team coaches (see: The Week in Women's Football: Kerr leaves Scotland; NWSL roster changes; FIFPro report on COVID impact; - Tribal Football). This week we look at more coaching changes, now involving England and Mexico's women's national teams.
England's Women's National Team—A Chain of Coaching Changes affecting coaching moves in Canada, Norway and Major League Soccer
Former Norwegian international, Women's World Cup Winner (1995) and Olympic Games Gold Medalist (2000) Hege Riise will, beginning in February, lead the Lionesses of England (which should supply the vast majority of the players for Team Great Britain), ahead of this summer's Olympic Games Finals. She will be assisted by Canadian U-20 head coach and former Norwegian league player Rhian Wilkinson. Their contracts will end on August 31, 2021.
Risse has been coaching LSK Kvinner in the Toppserien in Norway, a perennial top club in Lillestrom, as head coach since 2016 after starting as an assistant with the club in 2012. The club won six straight league titles from 2014 through the 2019 season and 5 Cups. Previously she was an assistant coach of the U.S. women's national team, helping guide the team to the final of the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2011 in Germany and the Olympic Gold Medal in 2012 in London. She scored 58 goals in 188 internationals as a player.
Wilkinson won 181 caps for Canada and helped them win back-to-back Bronze Medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games before turning to coaching. Her playing career as an attack-minded full-back also took her to Norway and the United States before she retired in 2017. Wilkinson participated in four FIFA World Cups, three Olympic tournaments and won medals at all six CONCACAF tournaments and all three Pan American Games in which she played.
Wilkinson took charge of Canada at the 2018 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in Uruguay, finishing impressively in fourth and has been seen by many as a future national team head coach. In a social media post announcing her decision, Wilkinson said she was leaving with a, "heavy heart. This decision has been incredibly difficult as this team has been my family for the past 20 years." Wilkinson applied for the Canada coaching job that went late last year to England's Bev Priestman, after Kenneth Heiner-Moller returned to his native Denmark.
She told Neil Davidson of The Canadian Press recently that, "Canada Soccer didn't think I was ready yet. Of course I wouldn't have applied if I didn't think I could do the job. But I also know that I have a lot more growth [to accomplish]." She did not have bad feelings towards the CSA or Priestman, who she called, "a wonderful hiring. She's going to do really well with them. But it was more about my career and my aspirations. I one day want to coach Canada, absolutely a dream of mine for the future. And I realized, just like as a player, that you've got to make hard decisions about your comfort zone, and leaving it and learning from other people and challenging yourself. That was something maybe I haven't been doing in the last few years, that maybe I needed to leave this country that I love and these players that I love in order to really challenge myself."
Both Riise and Wilkinson signed short-term contracts after Phil Neville—who had agreed to continue coaching England through the Olympic Games before surrendering the job to Sarina Wiegmann of the Netherlands (who is coaching her home side at those same Olympic Finals)—but he resigned early and was promptly hired last week by former Manchester United teammate and now Inter Miami MLS team co-owner David Beckham as the side's second coach for the franchise's second season. Neville led the English women's national team for three years, taking them to the semifinals for the second consecutive WWC, losing to the Americans and then Sweden to finish fourth. After finishing third in 2015 at the Women's World Cup in Canada, the 2019 effort was seen as not fulfilling the team's potential. England did win the SheBelieves Cup in 2019 against the United States, Japan and Brazil. Neville said, "I am incredibly delighted for this opportunity to coach Inter Miami…This is a very young club with a lot of promise and upside, and I am committed to challenging myself, my players and everyone around me to grow and build a competitive soccer culture we can all be proud of."
In Miami, Neville replaced Uruguayan Diego Alonso, who had experience coaching in Uruguay, Paraguay and Mexico, for its first season. The club just missed the expanded postseason (due to COVID-19) after posting a regular season mark of 7-3-13 (W-D-L), finishing 10th in the 14 team Eastern Division and 19th overall in the 26 team league.
David Beckham said, "I have known Phil since we were both teenagers at the Manchester United academy. We share a footballing DNA having been trained by some of the best leaders in the game, and it's those values that I have always wanted running through our club." Regarding the idea that friendship alone was the key to hiring Neville, Beckham responded, "Of course, people are always going to turn around and say, 'Oh, it's because he's your friend.' It's nothing to do with him being my friend. Our ownership group don't (sic) just employ our friends. We employ the best people, whether it's on the field, off the field, in our backroom staff, the staff that we have work in our training facility, at the stadium. We are running a serious soccer club here. And I think at the end of the day, we hire people that we feel are best suited for the job."
While not a head coach in the men's game, Neville has experience as assistant coach at top flight men's teams Man United and Valencia in Spain, where his brother Gary was the head coach. Phil Neville said about his new job, "The biggest challenge for me as a coach is to come here and prove to people the foreign coaches can come here and be successful. There will be things about the travel, etc., and the different time zones that we have to adapt to, as well. But ultimately, I think in my football career, in my short coaching career, I've had to adapt to different situations like travel, like heat, etc."
As significant as Neville's hire was for Inter Miami, an important support role was the simultaneous appointment of Chris Henderson as chief soccer officer and sporting director; he played for the U.S. National Team in 79 games and for the past 13 years was a key executive in the very successful Seattle Sounders organization.
Turning back to England, the issue for Riise and Wilkinson is that, though they are in charge of a tremendously powerful team, they essentially are in their positions only through the end of the summer. Also, what happens if the Olympic Games do not take place this summer for Team GB while England has already qualified for the next European Championship Finals which they will host—now in the summer of 2022—and will have only friendly games until then? The opportunity for a third Olympic gold medal for Riise and third Olympic medal for Wilkinson are huge incentives with the job, and with both of their track records in the game, they will be in demand for coaching positions at the end of the summer, but it is still not common to take a national team job for such a top tier nation for only 7 months. Then again, COVID-19 times require us to change many presuppositions of what was standard or regular.
Jayne Ludlow leaves Wales Women's National Team Job
Jane Ludlow (42) has left Wales' women's national team head coaching role after her country was surprisingly knocked out of the next Women's EURO Finals by Northern Ireland in the group stage late last year. They were even with the Irish on points with 14 and had a much superior goal differential (+12 to 0) but went out on head-to-head goals by surrendering 2 goals at home in a 2-2 tie with their opponents. For the 2019 Women's World Cup, they finished in second place in their group but finished sixth out of seven teams vying for one of the four play-in spots for one last UEFA place in France.
She joined Wales in 2014 after managing Reading and playing for Arsenal for 13 years. Ludlow said, "My time as the national team manager has been an eventful and exciting journey. It has been an honor and an absolute pleasure to have worked with the staff and players." The Welsh native definitely raised the profile of the women's national team, particularly with the 2019 Women's World Cup near miss in qualifying. Ludlow has taken a position on a FIFA leadership team but is available to consider other management positions in the game.
Monica Vergara takes charge of the Mexican Women's National Team
Mónica Vergara has been named the next head coach of the Mexican national women's team, replacing outgoing manager Christopher Cuéllar and ending a reign of Cuellars in charge [following his father Leonardo Cuellar, who led the side from 1998 through 2016] in the reign that has extended beyond two decades. Vergara is the fifth head coach in Mexican women's national team history and the first woman. Mexico has gone to three FIFA Women's World Cup tournaments in 1999, 2011 and 2015, and only one Olympic Games, in 2004 in Greece. After missing the 2019 World Cup, former manager Chris Cuéllar took El Tri to the Pan American Games, where they finished in fifth place. They fell in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Olympic Games Qualification Tournament to the U.S 4-0 early in 2020; this reporter spent time with the coach and some of his team members after the game, as I was staying at the same hotel that they were in Carson, California.
Vergara has been coaching since 2014 with the Mexican federation, serving as a full national team assistant and head coach of the U-15, U-17 and, most recently, the U-20 women's national teams. Former national team and WUSA star Maribel Dominguez has been named to take over as U-20 head coach. Dominguez said, "I am eager for this process to begin, in order to work for a bigger goal in women's football. It's not only about placing Mexico at the top; it is also about helping all the girls in our country to fulfill their dreams in this sport." Dominguez was a long time star forward for the national team and played in the U.S., in Spain and at home, where she was once denied by FIFA in an attempt to play for a Mexican League men's second division side, since the women's league at that time was quite poor.
Monica Vergara with former U.S. women's national team head coach Jill Ellis during a FIFA coaching mentorship program (Photo Courtesy of FIFA).
Vergara named 26 players for her first national team camp at the end of January, including the following:
Alexandria Godínez Herrera—Monterrey
Itzel Gonzalez Rodriguez—Tijuana
Wendy Estefani Toledo Barroso—Santos
Monica Irina Flores Grigoriu—Monterrey
María Andrea Sánchez Piñon—Monterrey
Bianca Elissa Sierra Garcia—Tigres
Kimberly Vanessa Rodriguez Cubero—Oklahoma State University
Reyna Rene Reyes Stubblefield—University of Alabama
Miriam Vanessa García Muñoz—Guadalajara
Nicole Shelby Soto—Arizona State University
Valeria Aurora Miranda Rodriguez—Queretaro
Rebekah Bernal Rodriguez—Monterrey
Diana Laura Evangelista Chavez—Monterrey
Joana Robles Partida—Atlas
María Guadalupe Sánchez Morales—Tigres
Karla Paola Nieto Castillo—Pachuca
Maricarmen Reyes Zárate—University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
Dania Nicole Pérez Jiménez—Monterrey
Alexia Fernanda Delgado Alvarado—Arizona State University
Christian Carolina Jaramillo Quintero—Guadalajara
Alicia Cervantes Herrera—Guadalajara
Katty Martinez Abad—Tigres
Sandra Stephany Mayor Gutierrez—Tigres
Daniela Espinosa Arce—Club America
Dorian Montserrat Hernández Garcia—Club America
Alison Hecnary González Esquivel—Atlas
Four of the players selected are from Tigres of Monterrey, who won the 2020 Apertura (Opening championship) on penalties (3-2) after a 1-1 aggregate tie against Monterrey. It was their third league title (there is an opening and closing championship every year in Mexico), all won by defeating Monterrey. The Clausura 2020 title was not awarded last spring because of COVID-19, but Monterrey won the previous championship—the Apertura 2019—2-1 on aggregate over Tigres. One of Tigres's national team members in camp was 2015 Women's World Cup Finalist Maria Sanchez, who played at Guadalajara in 2020 and transferred to Tigres ahead of the fall season, after playing a few games with the Chicago Red Stars in 2019 following her collegiate career at Santa Clara and Idaho State University. Monterrey supplied six players to the camp. Five of Vergara's selections currently play at American colleges—two at Arizona State University.
Some well-known names not brought into camp include former NWSL and Korean Republic league striker Renae Cuéllar from Tijuana, goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago—who signed this season with PSV in the Netherlands—and Jimena López, who recently just signed a two-year deal with Eibar in Spain after being drafted by OL Reign of the NWSL last month after playing at Texas A&M University.. Lopez will be playing in the Primera Iberdola along with Mexican national team fixtures Charlyn Corral (Atletico Madrid, but is out with a torn ACL she received in October), American-born Kiana Palacios of Real Sociedad (who played collegiately at UC Irvine) and Kenti Robles López (who joined Real Madrid this season and has won 5 league titles at Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in a fifteen year career playing in the country. Lopez said in a club press release about her signing with Eibar (currently tied for ninth place in the 18 league table with Valencia on 21 points from a 6-3-6 (W-D-L) record with a game in hand against Valencia and two against eighth place Sevilla on 23 points) that she was, "very excited and want to contribute how I can to the team."
News from Africa
South Sudan has recently been quite focused on developing the women's game in the country. South Sudan, which became independent in 2011 and joined FIFA as their 209th member in 2012, saw their women's national team play its first international game during the CECAFA [Council for East and Central Africa Football Associations] Women's Football Championship. At the 8 team event held in Tanzania last November, South Sudan was in Group A with the hosts, Burundi and Zanzibar; South Sudan finished third after starting with a 9-0 thrashing at the hands of Tanzania but bounced back with a 5-0 win over Zanzibar and then posted a 3-0 defeat to Burundi. In December they launched a new women's football strategy with four key goals and are set to launch a new national women's league in February 2021.
The women's strategic effort, called Entitled Stars Unite, aims to build an inclusive and sustainable future for women's and girls' football in South Sudan, focused on four key goals:
- To increase the number of female coaches, referees, players and administrators. A series of measures including women-only courses are planned.
- Increase the number of girls playing football at grassroots and community level by 70 per cent through school festivals and community outreach projects. Currently there are 5,000 players nationwide.
- Launch a national women's football league, building an elite player pathway for teams from each region of the country, as well as committing to participate in six international tournaments with the women's national team, with players provided with central contracts.
- Develop a marketing and communications strategy to boost awareness, advocacy and the sport, using ambassadors from the worlds of sport and music.
The South Sudan Football Association has taken the first steps by appointing former Uganda international Jean Sseninde to a consultancy role to spearhead Stars Unite. Sseninde told BBC Sport Africa, "Some of the barriers include convincing members that women can still play football. We have a lot of work to do in terms of sensitizing all the way in the communities and schools so that everyone in South Sudan will know that it's time for women's football to shine. We need to have all stakeholders support women, which will also help stop early marriages of young girls."
Sseninde (28) is currently at Wakefield Trinity Ladies, a lower-tier club in England in the North East Regional Women's Football League, and is also on the Confederation of African Football's women's committee. She previously played at Charlton Athletic, London Phoenix, Crystal Palace and Queen's Park Rangers.
Sseninde is hopeful that the game can grow quickly in the country, "The girls are actually very talented. I was beyond impressed when I saw them play. I tell you there's a lot of hope for this team to be the best in East Africa, give it just a few years. I know once the teams' facilitation is improved and they get full-time training, it's going to be the team to watch in 4 years…The immediate target is to have some coaching courses for the women as they get ready for the first ever women's league." The SSFA wants the national women's league to kick off in February but its president admits there are still barriers to overcome including transportation of teams across states and the financing.
In neighboring Sudan, the second season of the Sudan Women's League kicked off on December 26, 2020. The 2020-21 season includes 23 teams divided into four groups in the major population areas of Khartoum, Obeid, Kadougli and Wad Madani. Each group has six teams while Obeid has five. The top two teams of every group reach the next round, with Khartoum's group given two more sports for last season's winners Al Difaa and runners up Al Tahadi, whatever their positions final group position may be. Mervat Hussein Al Sadig, the Head of Women Football in Sudan's Football Association, said that they plan to create a Super Women League in 2021-22 for the top ten teams, while the remaining sides will compete in a lower division, as a part of their Women's Football development plan.
This is a real positive to add tiers to women's football and encourages younger players to start in the lower division and then move up to the top tier as they develop their game, rather than initially competing against women that could be 10 years or more older in age.
In Egypt, Wadi Degla won the Egyptian Premier League Women for a record eleventh time and captured the 2019-20 title late in October. A thrilling 4-4 draw with El Amiria saw Degla raised their tally to 36 points, four more than their closest contenders Kafr Saad, with one game left to play. In other matches in the penultimate weekend, Kafr Saad defeated Al Masry Cairo 2-0, Bashteel won Al Maadi 3-2 while Tayaran thrashed Tram 11-0.
Wadi Degla will now represent Egypt in the maiden CAF Women's Champions League qualifiers next season—a new pan-regional competition that this author is very excited to see. Last year saw the first ever women's club championship in Asia—and this type of event should be replicated at the club level in CONCACAF and Oceania. Plans are for this African Women's Club Championship to comprise 8 teams—champions from the 6 CAF regions plus a club from the host nation and a wild card team to be selected. The next step would be for FIFA to establish a women's club championship, which could be staged in one country in either a group format with 8 teams to start.
Former Wadi Degla player Sarah Essam is still with Stoke City in England, joining the side in 2017 after tryouts at Derby County, Birmingham City and Sunderland, when Stoke pipped Derby for her signature and she finished her first season as the team's top scorer. She thus became the first Egyptian women's footballer to play professionally in England. She is also studying engineering at college in England. She talked about developing the league game at home and would like to see women's teams aligned with some of the biggest sides on the African continent, "To promote the game, we need to have women teams in clubs like Al Ahly and Zamalek. These are the biggest clubs in Africa and I believe they have to play their role in order to put our game in a much better place." She also had a message to aspiring female footballers at home, "My message to African women footballers is simple, believe in you and never compare yourself to others. If people say you can't do something, make this a motivation. Never say it's too late because you can always work harder. Struggling means you are on the right track so never give up and keep going until you make yourself proud",
Stoke City is currently in seventh place in the Women's National League—Premier Division (third tier of English women's football) with a 3-3-2 (W-D-L) record for 11 points in the 12 team north section. Since Essam has been at Stoke, they have finished fourth, seventh and fourth again prior to this campaign.
Egyptian footballer and role model Sarah Essam, the first women's player from her country to play professional league football in England. Photo courtesy Confederation of African Football.
CAF Selects Pool of Referees and Assistants for the 2023 Women's World Cup
Eight referees and eleven Assistant Referees were named by the African Football Confederation for the "Road to AUS / NZL" project, forming a selection pool for the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup Finals in Australia/New Zealand. The 18 candidates come from 15 CAF member countries, with two each from Mauritius, Morocco, Nigeria and Tunisia.
Salima Mukansanga (Rwanda), Lidya Tafesse Abebe (Ethiopia), Maria Rivet (Mauritius), Bouchra Karboubi (Morocco), Ndidi Patience Madu (Nigeria), Vincentia Amedome (Togo), Fatou Thioune (Senegal), Dorsaf Ganouati (Tunisia)
Assistant referees (11):
Mary Njoroge (Kenya), Lidwine Rakotozafinoro (Madagascar), Bernadettar Kwimbira (Malawi), Queency Victoire (Mauritius), Diana Chikotesha (Zambia), Mimisen Iyorhe (Nigeria), Fatiha Jermoumi (Morocco), Houda Afine (Tunisia), Fanta Kone (Mali), Carine Atezambong Fomo (Cameroon), Yara Atef Said Abdelfattah (Egypt).
UWS Adds Teams for 2021
UWS League One Expansion
UWS has announced that the St. Albert Soccer Association (SASA) Impact FC of Edmonton, Alberta is joining the UWS' West Conference for 2021. The St. Albert Soccer Association is a non-profit organization that strives to offer soccer programs for all ages and levels of skill and interest. With approximately 5,000 registered players each year in their indoor and outdoor seasons, SASA offers programs for child, youth and adult players in both community and competitive leagues. The club is proud to be one of seven Alberta clubs to be a Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) National Youth License Member. Reil Recreation Park in St. Albert, Alberta will serve as the team's home facility.
SASA Impact FC will be led by Troye Flannery, the first-ever two-time UWS Coach of the Year selection. He won three straight West Conference Coach of the Year honors with the Calgary Foothills Women's FC, who he led to their second consecutive West championship in 2019. The University of Calgary head coach was honored as the Canada West and U SPORTS (the national governing body of university sport in Canada) Coach of the Year in fall 2018.
SASA Executive Director & Impact FC Sporting Director/Owner Chris Spaidal said, "Having a franchise in the UWS is a massive step for our club to take in extending the pathway for female athletes in our region. We are committed to providing opportunities for all females to meet their needs in achieving their potential as players, while ensuring participation can be maximized within our structure. This is a very exciting venture for our entire organization to undertake and we are thankful for Troye in guiding us at this step.
Albany Rush is joining the East Conference for the 2021 UWS season. The Albany, New York-based club has been in operation since 2016 as a region of New York Rush and contains a comprehensive youth program with 80 teams and more than 1,000 players. Brian Gordon will serve as the inaugural Head Coach of the Albany Rush. The Erskine, Scotland native has previously worked in the college game as Assistant Women's Coach with the University at Albany and Head Women's Coach at his alma mater Hartwick College. Gordon led Hartwick to double digit wins his final two years, the first time in program history since the 1991-92 seasons. He has earned a National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) Advanced National Diploma.
A second Rush Soccer team will be based in the Greater New Haven Connecticut area and will be called the Connecticut Rush. Rush Soccer is an international sports organization dedicated to the development of soccer players. The UWS team will be led by Brendan Faherty, Megan Burke, and Sarah Tompkins. Faherty has over 20 years of experience combined at the college and club level coaching on the women's side, and holds a USSF A License and a UEFA B License. Burke and Tompkins are currently Assistant Coaches at Fairfield University and Quinnipiac University, respectively.
These two Rush sides will join New Jersey Teamsters Football Club (NJTFC) in the East Conference of the UWS and in the UWS League Two as well. After success in leagues such as the Garden State Soccer League (GSSL) and United Premier Soccer League (UPSL), the men's side will make the jump to the professional ranks and the third level National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) in 2021. Founded by Alex and Sibrena Geraldino in 2017, NJTFC made history in February 2020 as the first principal Black-owned professional soccer club in the United States of America.
The Teamsters will play out of Don Ahern Veteran's Stadium, a 7,500-10,000 capacity in Bayonne, NJ. The Geraldino's are also minority owners of Dublin County FC based in Dublin, Ireland. Dublin County FC's application for a Division I team has been accepted and, upon final approval of the FAI license, will serve as a pathway-to-pro for all Teamsters FC players. NJTFC currently has the following developmental teams: Reserves, U-23, U-19 and Elite Academy. Depending on COVID regulations and pending weather, training and women's trials will take place in February 2021 for all teams. The team motto is: "Stand Ready to Strike!"
Another new team joining the East Conference is Scorpions SC of Southeastern Massachusetts. The organization is based on the South Shore of Massachusetts, where they currently compete nationally in the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) and locally in the National Premier League (NPL) and New England Premiership (NEP). They will join perennial conference contenders New England Mutiny as the second UWS club in the Bay State. Established in 1998, the aim of Scorpions SC is to enhance the level of soccer for all our aspiring members by providing multiple competitive platforms and pathways. The club has a reputation of developing players at all levels in its efforts to encourage competitive soccer pools for local high schools and nationally-recognized Division I, II and III colleges. Scorpions has produced players for some of the top universities in the country in recent years and their alumni include Kristie Mewis and Samantha Mewis of the U.S. Women's National Team.
The Michigan Stars FC, a professional minor National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) third-tier league club, has added a pro-am United Women's Soccer (UWS) league side for 2021 as part of its organization and will play in the UWS Midwest Conference.
The women's team will primarily consist of college athletes nationwide with an emphasis placed on in-state players. Future plans will include players from their newly formed youth club, creating a competitive pathway from youth to adult.
Michigan Stars Sports Center (formerly Total Sports Park) in Washington Township—in Macomb County on the Northeast side of the Detroit Metropolitan area—is the home for the professional men's team and its U-23 developmental counterpart. It will also serve in the same capacity for the new women's pro-am team. Michigan Stars Sports Center is an 80-acre soccer complex that contains 23 outdoor fields as well as an 118,000 square-foot indoor facility containing one full size 11v11 field. Coaching staff and tryouts for the women's side will be announced at a later date.
The newly-established Central Conference of United Women's Soccer (UWS) has added its fifth addition for the 2021 season. FC Wichita will round out the conference lineup alongside the previously announced quartet of teams: Nebraska-based Gretna Elite Academy, KC Courage and two teams from Missouri in St. Louis Scott Gallagher and Springfield Demize. The club is the second UWS team based in Kansas alongside the Courage (Overland Park, KS) and Wichita's premier soccer facility—Stryker Soccer Complex—will serve as FC Wichita's home facility.
UWS League Two Expansion
United Women's Soccer (UWS) League Two announced the formation of the Mid-Atlantic Conference in November for the upcoming 2021 season. Two new franchises have now been added to the lineup as Northern Virginia FC (NOVA FC) and the Delaware Union will take part in the conference's inaugural campaign. The newcomers will join the first four teams that have been announced: Annapolis United FC, Keystone FC, Lancaster Inferno and Maryland-Elite SC.
Nova FC was founded in 1998 and is based out of Woodbridge, Virginia and the Greater Washington D.C. area. This will serve as a return to the landscape of national pro-am women's soccer as the Majestics played in the now-defunct USL W-League from 1999-2013. Ongoing discussions to bring back the women's side have now come to fruition. The men's side has made the move up from USL D3 to USL2 as well.
Nova FC Coach Kareem Sheta said, "We look forward to competing and building relationships with other clubs to grow the women's game in our area and hopefully provide talent up the ladder. Our plan is to provide different pathways for players throughout their youth, college, and post-college careers. We look to achieve this through our youth club partnerships around our region. The partnerships will provide the top youth players an opportunity to train with the first team."
The Delaware Union was officially founded in 2014, but the organization's roots go all the way back to 1983. The club is a merger between MOT Youth Soccer and Central Delaware Soccer Association (CDSA) and has been a staple of the Middletown, Smyrna and Dover communities for over 25 years. UWS Two tryouts will be held in March and May.
Three other new teams in three separate conferences—New England, Northeast and Great Lakes—have been added to the second division of competition of the UWS national pro-am league recently.
In the New England Conference of League Two, New England Futbol Club will join the four previous teams announced in mid-December: the reserve teams for the Connecticut Fusion, New England Mutiny and Worcester Smiles as well as North Shore-based Upper 90 Soccer Academy for the 2021 season. NEFC is based out of Mendon, Massachusetts and various sites across the Bay State and will compete out of NEFC Park in Mendon. They have over 1,500 female players playing for their club with 10 National Championships in the club's history.
In the newly-formed Northeast, Steel United is the third team to join the conference alongside the UWS reserve teams of New Jersey Copa FC and New Jersey Teamsters Football Club. Based in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, Steel United is the nation's fastest growing soccer club with programs currently in eight different states.
Familiar faces will return to UWS League Two as the founders of Genesee FC (who competed in the Midwest Conference in 2018) will bring a new team to the Great Lakes Conference. FC Midland is based in Midland, Michigan and serves the Great Lakes Bay Area region (the Tri-cities of Saginaw, Midland and Bay City). They are the ninth team to join the conference. The club will be hosting tryouts in February & March and will play their home games out of Northwood University.'
New WPSL Franchise for Vermont
Vermont will see a WPSL team this summer as the VT Fusion will play at Applejack Stadium in Manchester, which was once a horse racing course. The grandstand, built in 1877, was recently upgraded with improved sightlines and ADA-accessible seats. It's believed to be the highest level of women's team sports ever played in Vermont, according to team officials. Black Rock FC Soccer, a top-tier player development club based in Great Barrington, Mass., had planned to play its men's USL-2 league games at Applejack in 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic canceled their season. If Black Rock plays home games there in 2021 as planned, it would make Manchester, with a population just over 4,000, a true center for soccer in the region.
The VT Fusion will play in the Metropolitan Conference against teams from New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island. The club, which offers travel team soccer for about 200 boys and girls, will not increase its registration fees to cover the cost of the WPSL team, which is a common practice in the league, but will raise money through local business sponsorships and donors. According to club general manager Chris Chapdelaine, the women's coach at Castleton University, the franchise application costs $3,800 and annual league fees are $4,200. Depending on travel and housing costs for out-of-state players, this reporter feels that the additional expenses for the club should be in the $10,000-$20,000 range. They want to have food trucks at games and offer sales of beer and wine.
These new franchises coming into UWS and WPSL is a very good sign for the development of women's football in North America in that, despite the severe economic impact of COVID-19 in 2020 which has devastated many sports organizations—particularly in the minor leagues—there still is a lot of interest in women's development league teams throughout North America for teams in what are effectively the second tier of professional women's soccer supporting the National Women's Soccer League.
USL Plans to Start a Pro-Am League Again in 2022
Multiple sources have reported that the USL is planning to start a women's pro-am league in the spring of 2022, seven years after shutting down their W-League, which ran for over two decades (1995-2015) and sent many players to professional leagues and national teams, both in North America and abroad. We reported last year that former U.S. women's national team defender Angela Hucles was hired by the league to direct women's football activities for the league (see: https://www.tribalfootball.com/articles/the-week-in-women-s-football-nasl-changes-uws-adds-league-two-usl-return-4316424).
Hucles is also involved in Angel City FC's (Los Angeles) expansion side which is joining the NWSL in 2022 so her long-term role with the USL is still unknown. More information about the league is due to be released in the coming weeks but initial reports are that it will be a level below the NWSL, with a target of 30 clubs. College players will be able to compete in the league—as they do in the WPSL and UWS—without losing their eligibility. No doubt they will draw on ownership groups from the three USL men's leagues—USL Championship, USL League One and USL League Two—which comprises over 125 clubs in the North America. Some of these clubs are affiliated with UWS and WPSL clubs, including FC Tucson, Charlotte Independence, Chattanooga Red Wolves, Tampa Bay Rowdies. WPSL has over 100 teams and UWS (with two league levels) should have around 50 clubs. The WPSL and UWS have seen teams flop back and forth between the leagues over the past few seasons so short-term, another league option shouldn't be of undue concern as the old USL W-League fees could become pretty pricy for amateur organizations. One fan on social media described the new league as "Just another money grab by the USL." The USL league will have to differentiate itself as something different/better/unique from the other two leagues. In terms of perceptions that I have, after reporting on the North American pro-am leagues for decades, the USL's W-League was viewed as expensive to join but had very high operational standards and was quite well organized. The UWS has been lower priced to enter but is reliable in terms of meeting schedules and is consistent (2020 not counting because of COVID-19) and largely viewed as the heir to the old W-League. The WPSL with over 100 teams has always been a relatively inexpensive league to enter and sees turnover of teams in the 20-30 range every year. Teams will make the playoffs but step out of them for budget reasons or because they are unable to keep their players longer (mostly from college team recalls). For any WPSL game that I go to, I call the coach or general manager about an hour before I leave to make sure that the game is still being played at the originally scheduled location. I don't have to do that for other leagues. The long-term issue is does the USL league become just another pro-am summer league or will there become a hierarchical structure among these leagues supporting the NWSL, much as we have seen on the men's side from U.S. Soccer? A spanner in the works for this hierarchy, plus for teams in determining which league they want to plan in, could be the recent UWS news that they are starting a fully professional league in 2022 (see below). We will monitor these leagues over the months to come.
UWS to Start a Professional League with the men's NISA in 2022
On January 28, the UWS issued a joint statement with the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA), a third-tier men's league founded in 2017 which should have 8-12 men's teams in 2021 including the New York Cosmos, Michigan Stars and Detroit City FC, to launch a professional women's league. According to a UWS league press release, "The relationship between the national pro-am women's league and professional men's league will reflect a combined vision to create greater opportunity, improved operations and merit-based advancement for women's clubs, players and leadership. Slated to launch in 2022, the two leagues have three common organizations, Detroit City FC, Michigan Stars FC and the New Jersey Teamsters. UWS Chief Operation Officer Roberto Aguas explained, "In a time where there are several professional and amateur leagues for men across North America, there still is a huge gap between the college and professional ranks on the women's side…Women deserve equal opportunities, and with the amount of talent and interest across women's soccer in the U.S. and Canada, it makes sense to expand the opportunities to play professionally. While UWS fills that gap by providing the highest pathway to pro for the amateur player, its efforts to foster talent development will be augmented through this alliance and the development of a new women's pro league." The league sees itself as a level below the ten team NWSL but still a fully professional league. UWS Commissioner Joe Ferrara, Jr. said, "This will provide opportunities for female players to achieve the dream of professional soccer. Furthermore, it will increase the community engagement in UWS markets across the nation."
UWS alumni playing professionally include: 2019 UWS Championship MVP Catarina Macario (Olympique Lyonnais), 2019 UWS Player of the Year Kate Howarth (Orlando Pride), 2018 All-UWS honoree and Canadian international goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé (FC Rosengård), 2017 UWS Player of the Year Deyna Castellanos (Atlético Madrid), 2016 UWS Player of the Year Krystyna Freda (Apollon Ladies FC, Cyprus), five-time Bulgarian National Player of the Year Evi Popadinova (Napoli in Italy) and Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit), among over 100 players who went on to the professional ranks in North America or abroad.
Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey